February 28, 2003

THE BEST thing about the argument in Annapolis these days over slots is that it has fostered State House debates on an issue of grave importance to Maryland - something that's been far too often lacking under decades of one-party rule in this state.

The election last fall of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state's first Republican leader in 34 years, held out that promise. Trouble is, Mr. Ehrlich, who's forcing the slots debate, has not been holding up his end - by failing so far to make a sufficiently detailed or strong case for putting thousands of these machines at some of Maryland's racetracks.

Word from Annapolis last night was that a new slots plan was imminently forthcoming from Mr. Ehrlich's office, one with major changes. We cannot help but be struck by how much the new governor seems to be doing this on the fly.

Worse, he's so far offered more distraction than substance - with the accusation that House Speaker Michael E. Busch is "playing the race card" and with the threat that without slots there won't be enough money for the historic increase in education funding approved by last year's legislature. Advocates say that threat contradicts promises he made during his campaign to honor this critical commitment.

There certainly may be a time and place for this sort of hardball in any governor's game, but at this point it smacks more of shooting from the hip, perhaps desperately so, than careful calculation. That's reminiscent of Mr. Ehrlich's off-the-cuff campaign style, which was effective at the time, but much more is now required.

And most to the point, it's hardly a productive stage-setter for figuring out the best course for such a sweeping change to the state's fabric and to the funding of its essential services.

Maryland, like many other states across the country these days, is in bad financial straits, and the seriousness of that bind demands a precisely reasoned plan. As the clock ticks down on this legislative session - now half over - Mr. Ehrlich's plan looks like a leap of faith and maybe even a prescription for disaster.

We've long advocated that the state shouldn't make the leap to slots under any circumstances. And Mr. Ehrlich's approach to promoting this major change has been neither encouraging nor fulfilling of his responsibilities as the state's leader.

Any resolution to Maryland's present budget crisis inevitably will affect the state's schools, its tax structure and much, much more. That deserves nothing less than arguments of substance on all sides.

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